The Challenge

Recent freezing weather conditions have driven UK gas prices to a 12-year high, while an increase in supply outages has reminded the UK public that its grid infrastructure may not be fit for purpose.

Grid operators are certainly willing to trial innovative new solutions, but for heat networks decarbonisation has been a real stumbling block. The UK has faced numerous warnings that it will miss crucial 2020 renewable heat targets and significantly damage its global reputation as a climate leader unless “major policy improvements” are rapidly enforced.

In fact, an Energy and Climate Change Select Committee report from September 2016 revealed that the UK is less than half way to meeting its heat targets. Solutions are being trialled and welcomed, with estimates suggesting that heat networks could deliver up to 18% of UK heating demand by 2030, up from current levels of 2% today.

However, in order to boost levels from 2% today, innovative partnerships need to be introduced that can test large-scale systems.

The Solution

Last week, gas network Cadent partnered with Northern Gas Networks and a consortium of technical experts to deploy a project that explores the potential on injecting zero-carbon hydrogen into a natural gas network.

Keele University will act as the testing grounds for the project and will have hydrogen injected into its private gas network. Keele has the largest university campus in the UK, accounting for more than 12,000 students and staff. With this in mind, the university’s 350 mixed-use buildings will act as a small-scale examination of how hydrogen gas could be safely integrated into existing networks.

The aim of the trial is to provide practical evidence that a hydrogen-blended gas can be integrated without disrupting gas services to customers.

Hydrogen will account for up to a 20% share of the University’s gas supply. Solutions firm the Health and Safety Laboratory will oversee all safety aspects of the project, known as the HyDeploy programme.

Phase One of HyDeploy will carry out gas safety checks across homes and buildings in the nearby area. Laboratory tests have also been carried out on household gas appliances, while the impact of hydrogen on different materials in the gas pipe network is also being examined.

Subject to Health & Safety Executive (HSE) approval – deriving from phase one of the project – the project will run as a year-long live trial from April 2019 to March 2020.

The Benefits

Hydrogen is viewed as a greener substitute and alternative to natural gas. When it burns, it only produces water and oxygen.

Subject to a nationwide roll-out, an abundant supply of hydrogen would also help networks cover supply outages when temperature levels drop, while steadying prices for consumers – potentially bringing some out of fuel poverty.

The live trial is also being backed by Government, boosting the likelihood of expansion. The project is being largely financed by Ofgem’s Network Innovation Competition and fits into the first stage of a £600m blanket scheme that aims to eventually cover homes and businesses across Liverpool and Manchester.

The Future

If the project proves successful, it could create a pathway for more hydrogen networks to be established, with Cadent claiming that wider expansion would support industry, transport and domestic applications.

Of course, expansion is no easy task. Converting the UK’s entire gas network to hydrogen would require more than 26 million domestic boilers to be replaced, which will add to the costs of any rollout.

Cadent is examining the performance of the 20% hydrogen blend in cutting heat emissions, as this can be injected without replacing equipment and boilers.

On a wider scale, the Government recently awarded £24m for nine district heat network infrastructure projects across the country to provide households and businesses with clean and efficient heating systems.

The hydrogen project also builds on Keele University’s aim to develop a carbon free future through its Smart Energy Network Demonstrator (SEND) Project. SEND will test “real world” energy infrastructures and technologies onsite.

The project is receiving up to £9m of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund and £4.5m from various Government departments, including the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The campus will act as Europe’s first “at scale”, multi-energy vector living laboratory to test low-carbon technologies and systems which can be researched, tested and scaled-up. More than 24 substations will be digitalised, 1,500 smart meters installed and 5MW of renewable energy placed across the campus.

Matt Mace

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